Archives for February 2012

Learning from experience – the choices we make

Learning to ride the business bike

It is only natural to wonder about “what ifs?” which are the choices we might have made in our lives but didn’t. Mostly we will form a view when it is too late to change. That is because as time passes we have the benefit of experience and feel we might have made a better choice.

So my choices might have been:

  • Should I have gone to that college? – No idea.
  • Should I have proposed to that girl I was madly in love with? – Yes.
  • Should I have emigrated to Canada in my twenties – Maybe but at least now I am not far from my parents who are really getting on a bit.
  • Should I have bought that house thirty years ago? – Probably yes.
  • Should I have found out what problem my colleague seemed to have with me over twenty years ago? – Yes.
  • Should I have bought our current house -Yes.
  • Should I have taken that job? – No, bad decision but I learned I was darned good at what I do so took away positives.

So we do at least have some of the answers after we learn from experience. What is important is both to learn and also not to have any regrets, because they distract us. So if I should have proposed to that girl all those years ago, at least I did propose to my wife much more recently and I am very happy that I did and she accepted. 🙂

When we start out in business we do make mistakes. We waste money on directory listings, we get caught out by scams. We try to compete on price rather than value for services when that should not be our market. We don’t differentiate ourselves from the competition.

We should learn from our experience. I think I have learned a lot about running a business. When we get on our bikes for the first time we have to learn how to ride them. I am sure I don’t know all the answers in business, as no one does. I am still willing to learn. Have you learned any harsh lessons which helped you make a better business?

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Why we need mutual respect between managers and their staff

A winning team (choir) I was once in. We all pulled together.

Such is life with football (soccer) managers that we can be quickly overtaken by events, or in other words, sackings. That is unfortunate in the context that the two most successful English clubs over the last fifteen years or so have had the same manager, albeit one is struggling at the time of writing.

Generally in management in any business, continuity is very important. But it is not the only thing that is essential. The other is the support and loyalty of your staff, and particularly those that earn the profits. It doesn’t matter how much your workers are paid, even when they are paid large and silly amounts. They have to want to work with you. They are not ciphers. They are human beings with emotions, and emotions have a lot to do with best performance.

So when the Chelsea football manager, Andre Villas Boas, says “it doesn’t matter if the players back my project” he is 100% wrong. What naivety, probably as a result of lack of experience. Having the support of his players is essential.

So many companies and businesses have foundered on strife and having a workforce who are not in tune with the management has been the cause of so much failure and chaos in industrial relations. Even if the manager has the support of the owner or managing director of a business he will fail if he cannot carry and motivate the staff and have them share a vision.

As we know, if there is mutual respect between a manager and her team, the sense of belonging to that team and an eagerness to please and be successful will bring about that success, and with that, profits.

It really is that simple. I have been junior staff and I have been a manager, so have seen it from both ends. The greatest business achievements are rooted in a sense of belonging to the team. A team is people who enjoy working together, not a list of people you pin on a board.

Don’t you love team work?

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Customer service and that nice warm feeling


Putting your stamp on the business

French bread and letters

We all like a bit of a moan sometimes. At least, I do. Recently on Twitter I complained that I had missed the post as the local collection was made early. I just saw the back of the van as it drove away.

To give them great credit, @royalmail responded within a couple of minutes and registered my complaint via Twitter, complete with reference number. I don’t know how far this will be followed up but I immediately got the feeling that they do care, so my feelings towards Royal Mail became a lot warmer.

I have mentioned before our local baker in the village. They have great products in the bread, and they are very friendly and helpful and allow us to reserve our favourite loaves over the telephone from 7:30 AM onwards. This sort of service inspires loyalty and of course testimonials since my wife and I tell everyone what a brilliant bakers shop they have.

Hospital hospitality

As a family we have seen rather a lot of hospitals recently. I guess we cannot avoid them all our lives.

This past week we spent the entire day at one. I really cannot praise too highly the service, but in particular the helpful friendly caring staff who made us so comfortable (patient and patient’s moral support) and looked after us so well. Of course no one really wants a reason to go back to a hospital, but we would certainly recommend it to others in need, and if we have to be hospitalised ourselves, I hope it is there.

It’s how they do it!

All bakers’ shops sell bread though not all bake on the premises as our does. Our baker stands out because we are made so welcome and can rely on top service. So we recommend them.

Our posties mostly do a very good job, and it makes me feel better about them that the business follows up on complaints rather than shrugs its shoulders.

A great hospital is worth knowing about and great service will help spread the word as well as allaying concerns about having to be admitted.

If we serve well our clients with a smiling face they will recommend us more easily. Smile!

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Planning a small business failure

Local shops need the right passing trade

I don’t always like to be right, but when a bookshop opened in our village, I really couldn’t see how it would stay in business for very long. It has lasted only about six months and has now closed. It really is very sad, and I can imagine the owner’s happiness at the start as I suspect he always wanted to run a bookshop. That sort of ambition in the face of stark reality is so often how these business misadventures start.

The shop stocked mostly local interest, remaindered and second-hand books. Such a shop would have to rely on passing trade and also would need to offer a choice not readily available elsewhere locally. Yet in the small “main drag” of the village there are three charity shops selling books (such is the state of local retail anyway), and those books will be of much the same variety as the bookshop had, including the local interest stuff, but of course much cheaper. And then there are the boot fairs and car boot sales to satisfy the second-hand book browser.

A bookshop needs to rely on regular browsing by visitors anyway, and like a website that means having visitors, because you need a fair number of those visitors to get enough purchases. Yet so much of the new and second-hand book market has gone on-line, in particular to Amazon, and many second-hand book dealers sell through the Amazon outlet; some grudgingly, but that is another story.

A shop has overheads such as business rates, and there will be a rent, because the landlord needs to have some return on his investment. The bookshop owner needed to ask those critical questions:

  • Do I have the right product?
  • Who is my market?
  • How will I get customers?
  • Can I afford the premises?

I don’t doubt that the proprietor had a dream of being successful and of being a fixture in the village. Starting a new business often has some risk and needs care. It doesn’t make sense to plunge our cash recklessly into a proposition which really has no chance because we have not done our homework.

However, like the road to Hell, the road to ruin is paved with good intentions. We need a proper business plan and to have someone with experience cast their eye over it.

Do you sometimes hate to be right?

Taking our business lives seriously

Be nice to your customers!

Playing at business

You may think the title states the obvious, but some people don’t use their heads. They take short cuts in their work, such as the carpenter who does a quick botch job, or they take long holidays and wonder why their business income falls and they are broke. It would be hard to believe for most of us, except it happens. Not attending properly to customers’ or clients’ needs means they will go elsewhere.

Doctor Doctor I feel like a pair of curtains. Pull yourself together!

If those slackers, because slackers they are, don’t pull themselves together and offer proper consistent reliable customer service rather than indifference and shoddy work, their businesses will suffer. In so many ways it is easy to make the change. I don’t understand how there can be such people who must rely on the next mug to sign up because they don’t keep their customers for long.

Don’t neglect the marketing

‘Doctor, doctor, people keep ignoring me.’ ‘Next please!’

It is no good setting up in business and not marketing. It is much better to make sure that everyone knows about you. You have to be visible. We know there are people who don’t market, but that is when they are so established and offer a great service or product. They get brilliant and deserved referrals.

If you have a new business or one quite young, that won’t work because you have no track record. Otherwise no one will know you are there. Get out there and market, and if you don’t know how, find someone with experience to help.

Make sure you are taken seriously

‘Doctor, doctor, there’s a strawberry growing on the top of my head.’ ‘I’ll give you some cream for it.’

Some people trash their businesses at meetings or networking event by talking too much and not managing their reputations. It is even worse on-line, so everyone needs to watch what they say on Facebook, in on-line forums, in their blog, or even in a thoughtless email. Google is our friend generally, but our enemy with our careless talk because it will come back to haunt us.

Reputation is the most important asset we have in business. Do you know people who are careless about their main source of income?

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You can lead a consultant to market…


Something to aim for

Here is a confession: I am a consultant. I am consulted about tax issues and I am consulted about business problems. Luckily my potential clients know where to find me. Luckily? Well, maybe not. I have to market to get business. It is obvious really.

I know quite a few other consultants. Many people who are consultants have retired from a long term job, or have been involuntarily “retired” through redundancy. Often such people have very valuable skills to offer and they want to work, or they need to due to pension disasters of which there are many in the private sector.

So often our consultants have no idea how to find business. It is often better not to call oneself a consultant for fear of being a butt of the many jokes.  So disregard my earlier remark that I am a consultant. I am someone who has a good deal of expertise and can really help you and your business. I also can help you find just the specialist you need.

Available for work

We have established that there are many very experienced people looking for freelance work. So many of them have no idea how to find this work and surprisingly for many who may have so recently had a job and had to use IT or ICT are technophobes with regard to the on-line stuff. Sadly for those people, that is where so many potential customers look for specialists if they haven’t found them through networking and word of mouth.

Action now!

So what to do? In many ways it is obvious:

  • have a website
  • have valuable content on the website in the shape of articles
  • have a blog

Content marketing is a main driver of visitors. The technical content on my main tax website is popular. It is also self-tuning in letting me know what people are looking for because I know what was in their search, which I know through Google Analytics and StatCounter.  In fact I don’t have to write articles very regularly if I make sure they are really valuable.

Then there is this place, On Our Bikes. It attracts prospective clients and it helps keep me up the search rankings. I am easily found on a name searchof course because my name is not that common, but there are for more instances of me than of the other guys with the same moniker. So there is no doubt about my name brand but my name would have to be known in connection with what I do for this to be really effective.

It might be better to search for my expertise. If we look for “tax Essex”, but without the inverted commas I am still high up  on the first page. If we enter “tax return Essex”, at the time of writing my business is the first of the entries which have not been paid for on the first page of Google.

So the answer in terms of driving the on-line marketing is through having websites and blogs which are entirely WordPress based. And WordPress is relatively inexpensive to manage though I recommend you do get some help in managing it. The results are really brilliant.

Don’t be Billy / Billie no-mates

I cannot understand how so many “consultants” sit around and wait for business to arrive somehow when they make no effort. Having a LinkedIn profile can help quite a lot. And any profile can help because I keep some of my photos on Flickr and the Google search entry for my Flickr says “Tax practitioner, business connector, freelance writer, blogger at On Our Bikes, Jon Stow Consulting Tax Blog and Jon Stow’s Posterous …” So you can keep your photographs backed up and have a profile mentioning your expertise. And it’s free, though I do recommend that any person with expertise makes more effort than that.

If you are a specialist, you can do a lot at relatively low cost to be found on-line. You do have to make an effort and not be scared of getting out there. Look at what others do, and adapt their tactics to your own skills.

Preferably you should pay a marketing person who knows what they are doing, so get a recommendation. I think that at a minimum you ought to have a LinkedIn profile and a website with a few specialist articles so that visitors can see that you know your stuff. Then talk to someone about how you can be found on-line ahead of other people (that’s called SEO).

Do it!

Just don’t do nothing. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. There really is no excuse especially when the alternative is poverty. Do you need a consultant, oh sorry, specialist?

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Can small businesses live off referrals?

Mountains don't travel well!

In my work I talk to many small business owners, and on a daily basis. Some in professional services are doing pretty well without making any effort to market. This is because they provide their clients with reliable, dependable support, and in return their clients recommend them to others. That way they have a steady stream of new business to replace the natural wastage, which is often due to other clients retiring and very often selling up.

These established businesses living off recommendations generally are not looking to grow too much, but their owners find themselves able to live a comfortable living. That’s great, isn’t it, in a time when the general business is difficult?

The whole world of small business isn’t like that though. I was talking to the owner of a start-up business two years old, and he told me that business was really very poor. They had hardly any clients coming to them. I commented that they did not seem to have a website and that they were almost invisible in the search engines. The owner said “But in our line we get all our business through word of mouth”; in other words through referrals. Except they aren’t getting any. This is two years down the line.

In some ways I understand my friend’s comment. I believe that once he worked in one of those established businesses I mentioned at the beginning; one where the work just kept coming in because their good service reputation was passed on by word of mouth. In a start up business you just don’t have that. You have to take the initiative. It is no good expecting the mountain to come to Mohamed.

A small business has to market. Any professional service business must have a website, and preferably a blog or good content showing the expertise of the owners. Content marketing for goodness sake! Then once a few clients come along and sign up, rightly convinced you know what you are talking about, they will talk about you. Your best marketers are your client advocates, but you have to have a virtual shop to display your wares.

It’s no good hiding your light under a bushel, especially as we all need money to live on. It’s really not true that if you build it they will come (sorry, Kevin).  You need publicity, your potential clients need to know where to come and they need to know what great stuff they will get when they arrive.

Are you hiding or is it easy to find you?

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Careless talk costs business

"Look who's listening Careless talk costs...

Careless talk... (via Wikipaedia)

One rule of business is “never rubbish the competition” because it creates bad feeling in your profession, you make your potential customers uncomfortable, and people wonder about your character.

Something else we have to consider is careless talk about our clients or careless talk in front of our customers.

It is easy to fall into the trap. We are out at a networking meeting and someone asks about a competitor or a mutual customer. We have to be careful what we say. We can be overheard. Our opinion, good or bad, can be passed on. Our reputation is at stake, whether it is for bad-mouthing an acquaintance or worse, a client, or more generally for being unreliable.

It is just the same on-line, or perhaps it is worse. If we express an opinion on a forum or on Facebook or on another website, it is out there for all to see. If we change our mind we may not have control over the content and be able to withdraw it. If we are unkind to someone on a forum or even if we state what we see as the truth, other people may have a different perspective.

Careless talk in front of our customers even if not about them can be costly. Many of us will have had clients (or will have) where something has not had the desired outcome, even if for reasons we cannot control. The trouble is that clients or customers may not have the full context and may worry about us or about themselves.

I was in a hospital waiting room the other day in which were around eight patients or relatives. Some of these people were likely not to be very well, so they didn’t need to hear the two receptionists discussing a patient who had apparently died in pain. If they had to talk about it, why not in their private rest room; certainly not in the hearing of the worried ill!

Customer relations and indeed business relations require discretion and common sense. If in doubt we should keep our counsel, and we should always engage brain when talking or writing in public. If I had been these receptionists’ manager and heard their conversation I would have “called them in for a chat”.

Have you come across business acquaintances and networkers who couldn’t keep their mouths shut and who have damaged their reputations far more than those they have criticised? How did you feel about them? I bet you wouldn’t buy from them.

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